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In ‘The Art of Self-Defense,’ the punches fall flat

Jesse Eisenberg, left, learns from his sensei (Alessandro Nivola) in “The Art of Self-Defense.”
Jesse Eisenberg, left, learns from his sensei (Alessandro Nivola) in “The Art of Self-Defense.” Bleecker Street

In writer/director Riley Stearns’ “The Art of Self-Defense,” a beta male gets in touch with his alpha by way of a strip mall karate school.

It’s a curious and intoxicating new experience for the fearful and timid accountant Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), who meets his sensei (Alessandro Nivola) after a near-fatal mugging. But what happens when you become the thing you hate and fear? What do you find in the darkest depths of yourself? Stearns grapples with notions of gender, violence and identity. But in this mannered, ironic take, his punches don’t land hard enough to leave a mark.

“The Art of Self-Defense” is “The Foot Fist Way” by way of Jim Hosking’s profane absurdity, with shades of Wes Anderson lurking around the curated aesthetic and thoughtfully composed frames. Taken with Stearns’ 2015 debut, the cult-deprogramming film “Faults,” it’s clear he’s developed a specific style: a palette of beiges and browns, performances that are mannered and precise almost to a fault and stories about the dark side of mind control.

When Casey finds Sensei and his karate school, he’s given something to live for in the wake of his near-death traumatic experience. He has purpose, discipline and a goal; the classes offer a lusty, embodied experience of blood, sweat and kicks to the solar plexus. His charismatic sensei doles out praise and condemnation in equal measure, like any great cult leader, leaving his students addicted and grasping for kernels and crumbs of his validation. But as Casey plunges deeper into Sensei’s world, attending the exclusive night class, working part time on accounting, his reality becomes surreal, twisted and darker than he ever could have expected.

The film feels at once painfully personal, an exploration of getting in touch with your own rage, trying on the performance of toxic, entitled, aggressive masculinity and seeing how it feels. When Casey fully steps into his alpha self, robotically demanding respect and power, throat punching his boss, objectifying women, demeaning his own dog, it’s sickening (and it does have consequences).

But the film never says anything pertinent about rage and manhood and sex because it refuses to get too personal. Its tone is arch and sarcastic, hitting queasy punchlines that rely heavily on cognitive dissonance. There are flickers of a brilliant performance in Eisenberg when he finds grounded, naturalistic moments. No one plays wounded and questioning better than he does, and as he comes to his realizations about his sensei, there are a few stunning, quiet reactions from him.

Although “feminine” is thrown around like the dirtiest F-word, the deadliest fighter in the dojo is the ferocious Anna (Imogen Poots), the most interesting character in the film. On the journey into a heart of darkness, Anna goes farther than any man into the depths of her trauma and rage, while it turns out Casey is merely the empty cipher at the center of the story.

For a privileged few, “The Art of Self-Defense” might be a brilliantly dry dark comedy. For the rest, it’s a tragedy, a nightmarish horror flick about the ruthless panopticon prison of gender. We don’t all get to choose how we take it in.

‘The Art of Self-Defense’

Rated R for violence, sexual content, graphic nudity and language.

Time: 1:04.

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